Snoop on, but don’t censor, ISIS

When a powerful denial-of-service attack brought down Sony’s PlayStation Network on Sunday, a group that claimed responsibility said it had acted on behalf of the Islamic State, the rapidly growing terrorist organization in the Middle East. Even if the “Lizard Squad” had nothing to do with it, the story was another example of Islamic State’s devilish skill at promoting itself on social networks.

“Kuffar don’t get to play videogames until bombing of the ISIL stops,” @LizardSquad tweeted out, using a derogatory Arabic term for “unbelievers.”

Though another hacker also claimed responsibility for the attack on PlayStation Network – with somewhat more persuasive detail – Islamic State supporters had already had their line cited by many media outlets.

That’s what you’d expect from an organization running perhaps the most successful international recruitment campaign in terrorism history. According to a recent Soufan Group report, more than 12,000 foreign fighters, 3,000 of them from Western countries, have joined the war in Syria since the three-year conflict began. Many of these fighters joined Islamic State, and one – who, judging by his accent, grew up in Britain – beheaded the photojournalist James Foley.

Social networks are a powerful tool for luring these people into the organization. Terrorist groups have always used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to draw young people into their ideological orbit. Islamic State, however, has the easy sophistication of a social media marketing startup – even apparently using pictures of its fighters with cute kittens labeled as “little mewjahideen.”

Islamic State even developed an app, called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, that automatically retweeted posts through accounts of those who downloaded it.

Twitter has been cracking down on Islamic State accounts lately, so they’ve moved to other networks, such as the decentralized Diaspora, where users fully control the content on their nodes, known as “pods.”

Many of these fighters are Millennials, part of a generation that grew up networked. Since Mark Zuckerberg threw his platform open to everyone, not just a select circle of Ivy League students, there has been no way to exclude anyone from using similar networks.

Now there are misguided attempts to censor the terrorist group out of existence. Writing for the Financial Times, Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor, called for the platforms to establish “ethics boards” to handle censorship and archiving. “Major platforms should not allow themselves to become vehicles for the easy dissemination of propaganda that depicts staged murder,” he wrote. “Shutting down Isis accounts will not remove this material from the Internet. But it will make it harder to find and harder to distribute.”

Making it harder for Islamic State to distribute its heinous materials makes a travesty of the freedom of expression and it does no damage to the group’s recruitment efforts. Those who want that type of content will track it down or receive it from friends, anyway. “Potential foreign fighters are interconnected within self-selected bubbles, and are isolated from anything outside,” writes Richard Barrett in the Soufan Group report.

Islamic State’s frantic social activity on the Internet doesn’t call for censorship, but rather for the use of the National Security Agency’s giant snooping potential. People who post selfies with Kalashnikovs from IS-controlled areas are probably terrorists, and their social network connections should be explored, not disrupted. The unchecked spread of information is an opportunity, not a threat.